Why links belong in text

June 2, 2010

A couple of people want to know what I think about the Nick Carr essay doing the rounds of the internet, where he advocates relegating links to the bottom of blog entries. Well, I think it’s silly. Links should stay where they belong, if only because that’s what we’re used to these days. When I read a phrase like “Laura Miller, in her Salon review of The Shallows”, I expect a link and there’s much more cognitive load placed on my brain — there’s much more buzzing in my frontal cortex — if there isn’t a link there than if there is.

What’s more, a link is a very easy way of explaining without words what I’m talking about, for those who wouldn’t otherwise understand. And a hyperlink, artfully deployed in just the right place, is a thing of great beauty. Consider, for instance, this post, in which Kevin Drum disagrees with me about whether credit default swaps can ever be benign. Near the end of the post, he writes:

I guess I have two questions about that. First, does it really work? Are CDS marks really reliable indicators of creditworthiness? That’s debatable. Second, even if they are, is this a big enough benefit to make the instability risk worth it?

That link is very funny and absolutely perfect where it is. If it were relegated to the end of the piece as some kind of footnote, all of its power would be lost; it would be the hypertext version of explaining a joke.

I’m sympathetic, in theory, to the whole issue of placing extra cognitive load on the brain. I have found myself of late using the Readability plugin a lot when I’m not reading text directly in my RSS reader. I’ve even been known to throw a minor diva fit with the style police at Reuters, who at one point insisted on turning every reference to the US into a reference to the U.S. That was something I hated, because I consider that placing a period in the middle of a sentence is a crime against readability: it draws you up short for no good reason.

I also dislike hyperlinks which give no indication of what they’re linking to (yes, Balk, I’m looking at you). It’s rude to make me click on links to understand what you’re saying, as though you’re still writing for Suck circa 1996. We’ve all grown up, at least a little, since then.

But for all that, links belong in hypertext. Indeed, they’re integral to it. Without links, blogs cease to be a part of the conversation and become instead essays with footnotes, a bit like Wikipedia articles. (And even Wikipedia, which puts links at the end of its articles, also makes very clear exactly which bit of the text each link is linking from.)

A blog entry with links at the bottom has aspirations to being self-contained, like say a newspaper column: the links are optional extras. I never have such aspirations and anybody looking to make full use of the power of the internet is doing themselves a huge disservice if they start thinking that way. In these days of tabbed browsing, there’s a difference between clicking and clicking away: most of us, I’m sure, control-click many times per day while reading something interesting, letting tabs accumulate in the background as we find interesting citations we want to read later.

Someone writing online should no more put their links at the end of their essay than a university professor should first give the lecture and then run through the slides. It makes no logical sense, and it does no good for the consumer of the information. So let’s nip this meme in the bud, and encourage the likes of Barry Ritholtz to always put their links where they belong, in the text, not buried at the bottom of the blog entries, where they’re easy to miss, or where they’d just pile up cacophonously if there were many of them.


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